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In Madagascar, People Remember One of the Deadliest French Colonial Wars in History

Caricature of the evolution of patriotism in Madagascar between 1947 and 2017 by Nino [with “For Sale” on sign in 2017 image] (from Madagascar blog with Nino's permission)

Seventy years ago on March 29, 1947, a war began between the French colonial government and Malagasy nationalist groups that by its conclusion two years later would see over 100,000 Malagasy residents dead, according to the High Commissioner of Madagascar. The number of deaths is remarkable in its sheer number, especially in light of the fact that the total population at the time was 4 million. This figure makes this conflict one of the deadliest of the French colonial period. The repression that the French unleashed vanquished the Malagasy nationalists and Madagascar remained a colony until 1960.

The war came not long after the end of the Second World War in which many Malagasy soldiers fought alongside the French army. The colonized joined the ranks of soldiers in the fight against Nazism and fascism, as well as for the liberation of France. In the Madagascar section of the French Defense Ministry website on the history of WWII called Chemins de Mémoire, French officials note:

Entre les deux guerres, l'exploitation des ressources de Madagascar se poursuit, ainsi que la modernisation de l'île, mais les revendications malgaches, à l'instar de celles d'autres colonies, ne sont cependant pas satisfaites. Malgré tout, dès 1939, les Malgaches répondent à l'appel de la France et 10 500 d'entre eux participent à la campagne de France en 1940, dont le tiers tombe au combat. Les 3ème, 11ème régiments d'artillerie coloniaux et le 42ème bataillon de tirailleurs malgaches s'illustrent particulièrement, tandis que des tirailleurs combattent bravement dans le cadre d'unités africaines.

Between the two wars, Madagascar’s resources were exploited as the island was modernized. However, the demands of the Malagasy people, as was the case with other colonies, were not met. Despite everything, from 1939 onward the Malagasy people responded to France’s request, with 10,500 of them participating in France’s 1940 campaign and one-third of that number dying in combat. The 3rd and 11th Colonial Infantry Regiments and the 42nd Malagasy Machine Gun Battalion particularly distinguished themselves, while the infantrymen fought bravely within African units.

For many Malagasy soldiers, this participation coupled with the increased political maturity of young intellectuals strengthened their desire for freedom. Following the victory over Nazism and fascism, the Malagasy people demanded greater autonomy within the French Union, as other colonies had achieved. The collaborative website Histoire coloniale et postcoloniale (Colonial and Post-Colonial History), which is written by French colonial historians stated:

En mars 1946, deux jeunes députés malgaches, membres du Mouvement démocratique de la rénovation malgache (MDRM), Joseph Raseta et Joseph Ravoahangy, déposent sur le bureau de l’Assemblée Nationale à Paris, un projet de loi demandant l’indépendance de l’île dans le cadre de l’Union française. Vincent Auriol, alors président de l’Assemblée, refuse de faire imprimer ce texte car « c’était un acte d’accusation contre la France et, en somme, un appel à la révolte ». Le projet de loi est repoussé.

Aux élections législatives suivantes de novembre 1946, les trois sièges du second collège (réservés aux « indigènes »), sont remportés par les dirigeants du MDRM, Joseph Ravoahangy, Joseph Raseta et Jacques Rabemananjara.

In March 1946, two young Malagasy deputies, Joseph Raseta and Joseph Ravoahangy, members of the Democratic Movement for the Renovation of Madagascar (MDRM), lodged a bill with the National Assembly in Paris demanding independence for the island from the French Union. Vincent Auriol, the Assembly president at that time, refused to have the text printed because “it was an indictment against France and actually a call to revolt.” The bill was rejected.

During the next parliamentary elections, in November 1946, the three second college seats (reserved for “indigenous people”) were won by the MDRM leaders, Joseph Ravoahangy, Joseph Raseta and Jacques Rabemananjara.

Against that backdrop, on March 29, 1947, two secret societies unleashed a wave of violence overnight in many locations around Madagascar. Instead of negotiating, however, the French government chose to suppress the uprising, and war began. In an article on the collaborative website Matiere et Evolution (Matter and Evolution), which is managed by history scholars, R. Paris recalled:

Le gouvernement envoie à Madagascar des renforts, essentiellement des troupes coloniales (tirailleurs sénégalais) : au total 18.000 hommes début 1948. La répression donne lieu à de nombreux débordements et crimes de guerre : tortures, exécutions sommaires, regroupements forcés, mises à feu de villages,…

Parmi les crimes les plus graves figure celui du 6 mai 1947, quand le commandant du camp de Moramanga, dans la crainte d’une attaque, fait mitrailler plus d’une centaine de militants du MDRM emprisonnés dans des wagons.

L’armée française expérimente aussi une nouvelle technique de guerre psychologique : des suspects sont jetés vivants d’un avion pour terroriser les villageois de leur région.

The government sent reinforcements to Madagascar, mainly colonial troops (Senegalese infantrymen), a total of 18,000 men by early 1948. The suppression led to many acts of violence and war crimes such as torture, summary executions, forced resettlements and torching of villages.

Among the worst crimes was that of May 6, 1947, when the commandant of Moramanga camp, fearing an attack, had over a hundred MDRM militants, who were imprisoned in wagons, shot. The French army also experimented with a new psychological warfare technique in which suspects were thrown alive from planes to terrorize the villagers in their area.

Wondering “how many were victims of the suppression?” an activist progressive website from southern France, Midi Populaire et Citoyen, attempted to answer, exploring the different attempts to nail down a number:

Les chiffres cités à l’époque devant l’Assemblée nationale parlaient de 80 000 morts, une estimation qui sera reprise par les spécialistes comme Jacques Tronchon. Encore récemment, l’écrivain Claude Simon évoquait “Madagascar, dont on a longtemps caché qu’on y a tué, en 1947, 100 000 indigènes en trois jours”.

Le problème est que ces chiffres seraient faux, selon les dernières estimations de certains historiens. Maître de conférences à Paris-I- Sorbonne, Jean Fremigacci affirme, comme d’autres historiens, que le nombre de personnes tuées lors de l’insurrection n’a pas dépassé les 10 000 (dont 140 Blancs), auquel il convient d’ajouter le nombre de Malgaches morts de malnutrition ou de maladie dans les zones tenues par les insurgés.

“Cette surmortalité reste encore très difficile à évaluer, l’hypothèse la plus vraisemblable tournant autour de 20 000 à 30 000 morts” , écrit M. Fremigacci. Il n’y a pas eu de “génocide oublié” à Madagascar, conclut l’historien, mais une faute des dirigeants politiques qui, à Paris, se sont révélés incapables d’éviter un drame annoncé.

The numbers quoted before the National Assembly at that time were around 80,000 deaths, an estimate which would be altered by specialists such as Jacques Tronchon. More recently, writer Claude Simon spoke of “Madagascar, where it has been hidden for so long that they killed 100,000 indigenous people in three days during 1947.”

However, according to the latest estimates of certain historians, these numbers could be wrong. Paris Sorbonne University lecturer Jean Fremigacci stated, like other historians, that the number killed during the uprising did not exceed 10,000 (including 140 white people) and that the number of Malagasy who died from malnutrition or disease in zones held by the insurgents had been added to this total.

The number of deaths is still extremely hard to assess, and is probably around 20,000 to 30,000 people,” wrote Mr. Fremigacci.

Erick Rabemananoro, previously a journalist with the Madagascar Tribune, paid tribute to these victims of colonial wars, one of whom was his paternal grandfather. On Facebook, Rabemananoro stated:

J'ai l'honneur de vous présenter mon grand-père paternel, Rabemananoro. Il fut placé par la France devant un peloton d'exécution en 1942, dans le tourbillon des luttes entre France vichyste et pro-Anglais en vue du contrôle de Diégo-Suarez et Majunga, où il travaillait.
Après cette première exécution, la France récidivera en 1947 en faisant également fusiller son fils et sa fille aînés, militants du MDRM. Nul n'est besoin de souligner l'impact de ces drames sur la vie de la famille, et les difficultés de ma grand-mère pour subvenir aux besoins des sept orphelins qui restaient.
Alors, en ce jour du 29 mars où tout le monde s'excite à tort ou à raison, je voudrais juste avoir une pensée pour toutes les familles qui savent ce que c'est que d'avoir payé le prix du sang versé pour la patrie dans le combat contre la puissance coloniale. Loin des grandes théories, des discours grandiloquents et autres activités folkloriques sous couvert de patriotisme et d'anticolonialisme

I’m honored to tell you about my paternal grandfather, Rabemananoro. In 1942, he was placed in front of a firing squad by France, during the chaos of battles between Vichy France and Allied France, in sight of the Diego Suarez checkpoint and Mahajanga, where he worked.
After this first execution, France reoffended in 1947, having his son and eldest daughter, both MDRM militants, killed by firing squad. The impact of these tragedies had on the family’s life was immense, as were the problems my grandmother had with meeting the needs of the seven orphans left behind.

Regarding that March 29th day when everyone was roused to action, rightly or wrongly, I would just like to spare a thought for all the families who know that they paid a price in spilled blood for the country in the fight against the colonial power. Far from the great theories, grand speeches and other patriotic activities under the guise of anti-colonialism and patriotism.

We need to go back to 1885 to see how the stage was set for this conflict. In a treaty signed by Queen Ranavalona III (Ranavalo-Manjaka III), France had defined its occupation of the island as a protectorate and not a colony. Jean-Claude Legros, a French historian and author of a book on Madagascar called Les flamboyants de l’exil (The Flamboyants of Exile), explains: 

un traité fut signé le 17 décembre 1885, dans lequel Madagascar se voyait imposer — bien que le mot ne fût pas utilisé — un statut de protectorat (impliquant la prise en charge par la France des relations extérieures de Madagascar), assorti du paiement d’une indemnité de dix millions de francs.

En contrepartie, les territoires Sakalava repassèrent sous l’autorité du gouvernement malgache et la reine se vit reconnaître le droit de « présider à l’administration de toute l’île ». En 1888, la reine fut même faite Grand-Croix de la Légion d’Honneur.

A treaty was signed on December 17, 1885, which saw protectorate status (implying management of Madagascar foreign relations by France) imposed upon (although the word ‘imposed’ was not used) Madagascar along with payment of a ten million franc indemnity.

In return, the Sakalava territories would revert to the authority of the Malagasy government and the queen given the right to “rule over the administration of the whole island.” In 1888, the queen was even awarded the Grand-Croix of the Légion d'Honneur.

The queen believed that the previous treaty she signed on October 1, 1895, with general Jacques Charles René Achille Duchesne representing France, would guarantee her crown and that the centuries-old Malagasy monarchy would be preserved. However, for the colonial power wishing to expand their empire, the treaty was nothing but a ruse. In the end, the queen was removed from power and exiled in Algiers.

In an 1895 article in the Revue des Deux Mondes (4th quarter, book 132), French economist Paul Leroy-Beaulieu wrote frankly and acerbically about his country's colonization of Madagascar:

La prise de possession de Madagascar par la France, quelque prix qu’elle nous ait coûté, quelles que soient les fautes ou les erreurs qu’on ait pu constater dans la préparation de l’expédition, a été une grande et belle œuvre. Une question se pose, toutefois, à l’heure actuelle, qu’il importe de trancher dans le bon sens, alors qu’il en est encore temps. Serons-nous vraiment les maîtres de la grande île australe ? Le traité intervenu entre la France et la reine Ranavalona nous donne-t-il un titre précis, incontesté, complet, non seulement pour l’administration intérieure, mais aussi à l’égard des étrangers, Anglais, Américains, Allemands ? Ne nous procure-t-il pas, au contraire, un domaine grevé de nombre de servitudes plus ou moins perpétuelles, et dont nous supporterons tous les frais sans jouir d’aucun avantage quant aux profits ?

The taking of Madagascar by France, however much it has cost us, whatever the faults or mistakes in preparing the expedition, has been a great and beautiful work. A question, nevertheless, must be asked at this time, when it is important to make the right decision while there is still time. Should we really be the masters of the great southern island? Has the treaty between France and Queen Ranavalona given us specific, uncontested, full entitlement for interior administration as well as with respect to foreigners, the British, Americans, Germans? Have we in fact acquired a domain burdened with many constraints, more or less constant, for which we will have to meet all the expenses but without reaping any advantages with respect to profits?

More than a century later, during a November 2016 conference between the heads of state of the International Organization of La Francophonie at Antananarivo in Madagascar, French President François Hollande recognized that atrocities had been committed by colonial troops during the war:

«C’est bien parce qu’il y avait eu cet engagement des Malgaches pour la France mais aussi pour la liberté, que beaucoup, après la Seconde guerre mondiale, ont commencé à songer à l’indépendance, à cette aspiration qui montait du peuple. Ce mouvement a soulevé l’île tout entière en 1947 et elle fut brutalement réprimée par la France. Je rends hommage à toutes les victimes de ces événements, aux milliers de morts et à tous les militants de l’indépendance qui ont alors été arrêtés et condamnés pour leurs idées».

It’s really because there was this engagement of Malagasy people for France, but also for freedom, that after the Second World War many started to dream about independence and about the growing ambitions of the people. This movement caused an uprising across the whole island in 1947 which was brutally suppressed by France. I pay homage to all the victims of these events, to the thousands of dead, and to all the militants who fought for independence and who were arrested and condemned for their ideas.

It is one thing for the French leaders to recognize these war crimes, but asking for forgiveness and paying out compensation are another. France has claimed its debts from Germany, but so far has neglected to face the consequences of wars started by itself.

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